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Prologue to Grass, Soil, Hope

This is the story of how I came into Carbon Country.

I’m a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who became a dues-paying member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association as a producer of local, grass-fed beef.

For a boy raised in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, during the heyday of sprawl, fast food, and disco music, this was a bewildering sequence of events. The closest I came to livestock were the horses my parents owned for trail-riding purposes. Cattle? Local food? I had no clue. Even when I became active with the Sierra Club after a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, my conservation work was highly conventional.

This all changed in 1997 when I cofounded the nonprofit Quivira Coalition with a rancher and a fellow conservationist. I did it because the constant brawling between environmental activists and ranchers had dispirited me. With Quivira, my conservation work became highly collaborative, with a focus on improving land health, promoting progressive cattle management, implementing creek restoration projects, and repairing damaged relationships. My Sierra Club experience had taught me a hard lesson: environmental problems were as much about social and economic relationships as they were about nature, thus requiring economic solutions to go along with ecological ones.

The membership in the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association happened in 2006 when 124 heifers were delivered to Quivira’s 36,000-acre Valle Grande ranch, located on a national forest near Santa Fe. Our plan was to sell grass-fed beef in Santa Fe, joining the rapidly growing local food movement, and use the revenue to pay for conservation activities on the ranch. Shortly thereafter, an invitation to join the Cattle Growers’ arrived in our office. And just like that, this former Sierra Club activist became a dues-paying cattle rancher!

In 2007, our path took another twist when Wendell Berry said at our annual conference that “we are not walking a prepared path,” in response to a question about the difficulties posed by the twenty-first century. Realizing that the times were changing, we added the words “build resilience” to Quivira’s mission statement. In doing so, I was now a long way from the grazing wars of the 1990s—not to mention the suburbs of Phoenix.

There was a lot to learn in this new country. Take climate change. It wasn’t on our radar screen at all in 1997, but a decade later it had become a major concern. Something needed to be done, but what? An idea arrived in 2009 when a publication came across my desk from the Worldwatch Institute titled Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use. Its authors, Sarah Scherr and Sajal Sthapit, wrote that the only possibility for large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through improved ecosystem function, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving land, and restoring degraded watersheds. That sounded like the work of the Quivira Coalition!

The miracle cure is called photosynthesis. As Scherr and Sthapit pointed out, plants naturally pull CO2 out of the air and convert it into soil carbon, where it is safely stored for long periods of time in the ground unless disturbed. This process has been going on for billions of years, and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes.

Since two-thirds of the earth’s land mass is grassland, additional CO2 storage in the soil via better management practices, even on a small scale, could have a huge impact. Grasslands are also home to two billion people who depend on livestock—an important source of food and wealth (and culture) to much of the earth’s human population. Both these animals and their human stewards could be mobilized for carbon action.

This made huge sense to me, so I called Scherr and invited her to speak at Quivira’s conference in 2010, which I had titled “The Carbon Ranch.” The purpose of the event was to describe the many ways by which food and stewardship can be used to build soil, store carbon, and fight climate change. I was determined to explore this exciting country and spread the good news.

I also decided we needed a map. So I sat down one morning at my dining room table and began sketching on a sheet of paper. I drew every joyous, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, relationship-building, climate-mitigating, local food–producing activity I could pull from my experience, putting them into a single mythical landscape. I knew a few things going in:

• Carbon is key. It’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases, and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up.

• We don’t have to invent anything. Over the past thirty years, all manner of new ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. We already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, improve water cycles, and generally build resilience into the land and in our lives.

• It’s mostly low-tech. It’s sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, mud, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, trees, compost, and creeks. Some of the work requires specialized knowledge and some of it has high-tech components, but most of Carbon Country can be easily navigated by anyone.

• Lastly, you’re on the map too. Everyone is, whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, hike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, restore creeks, or eat food—you’re on the map. You live in Carbon Country. We all do. It’s not a mythical land; it exists.

So, with my rough map in hand, I set out to explore this new land. Here’s what I discovered.


For more see: www.chelseagreen,com/bookstore/item/grass_soil_hope



  • Rancher Grady Grissom at Brandingnear Pueblo, CO
  • Organic Gardening ClassNazareth, Texas
  • Riparian Restoration on Comanche CreekCarson National Forest, New Mexico
  • J Bar L RanchCentennial Valley, Montana
  • Double Rainbow Over Bat Habitat Projecton Rowe Mesa, near Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Rancher Dennis Moroney Taking a Callnear Tombstone, Arizona
  • A Sustainable Family Farm in a National ParkDrake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore, California
  • Rancher Tom Sidwell on his restored grasslandsnear Tucumcari, New Mexico
  • Cattle Grazing Near Nuclear Power PlantDiablo Canyon, Central California
  • Workshop at the Chico Basin Ranchnear Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • These Fence Posts Rested on the Ground in 1935. What Happened?near Quemado, New Mexico
  • Which Side Was Grazed by Cattle? Which Side is Healthier?near Crowell, Texas
  • What's Wrong with this Picture? (hint: think like a creek)near Cerrososo Creek, Carson National Forest
  • Collaborative Hay Ride at Quivira Workshopnear Roswell, New Mexico
  • A Land Health Project on the Dry Cimarron Rivernear Folsom, New Mexico
  • A 'Poop and Stomp' on a Mine Tailing (note cattle on left)near Globe, Arizona
  • Draft horse farmer Walt Bernard at demonstrationJefferson County fairgrounds, Madras, Oregon
  • Farmer Colin Seis on Cropped Pasture (his idea) of Oats and Sheepnear Gulgon, New South Wales, Australia
  • Rancher John Wick Speaking to a Chinese DelegationMarin Carbon Project, near Nicasio, California
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Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey through Carbon Country is available! Order a copy from Chelsea Green Press:





The Mural

"Murals are large-scale paintings or pictures using a solid structure, such as a wall, as a canvas and are considered public art as they are often placed on buildings or structures. A muralist must have a competent sense of scale and a strong vision in order to create a work of art with any coherence." -

I am endeavoring here to create a portrait of this remarkable moment in history, largely by focusing on the working lands of the American West. The mural includes my conservation activities, writing endeavors, archaeological work, and a big photographic project. I hope it pleases!  - Courtney

writings, images, ideas by courtney white - collage of pictures from different websites and publications